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Bionic Commando

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Genre: Action
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: GRIN

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PS3/X360/PC Preview - 'Bionic Commando'

by Alicia on July 12, 2008 @ 8:12 a.m. PDT

Taking its inspiration from its 8-bit namesake released on the Nintendo Entertainment System back in 1988, Bionic Commando features Nathan Spencer (voiced by former lead singer of Faith No More, Mike Patton), a government operative who represents the ultimate fusion of man and machine. After distinguishing himself in a fierce conflict against the Imperials, Spencer is betrayed and falsely imprisoned by the very people he unquestioningly served.

Genre: 3D Action
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: GRIN
Release Date: TBA

Capcom's Bionic Commando has been an Internet sensation since the moment it was announced. In the wake of the overwhelming enthusiasm for the upcoming Bionic Commando: Re-Armed for XBLA, Capcom Japan decided the time for a Bionic Commando sequel developed with Western technology to exacting Japanese standards of quality had come. This long- overdue sequel to the 1988 NES classic is another title that is going to be a console purchase for most people, but it was recently shown off on a PC and played with an Xbox 360 controller. While this game does let you jump, you'll still primarily be using your bionic arm to solve some devilish platforming puzzles and climb to just about any point of most stages. Each level is designed with multiple paths to allow players to take different ways through, depending on their proficiency as a player and their personal preferences. In some cases, finding particular paths unlocks extra levels, side-missions, or other optional content that can't be accessed in another way.

The protagonist of the new Bionic Commando is a character named Nathan Spencer, an agent working in the fictional Ascension City who is betrayed by his own government and nearly executed. After the defeat of ... ah, "Master D" in the original game, the government had the bright idea to outfit as many agents as possible with bionic body parts similar to those possessed by the original protagonist Nathan Spencer. The agents began to go berserk from augmentations they couldn't handle, and Nathan became caught up in a general government crackdown on all of their bionic agents. Just in time to save Nathan, Ascension City is attacked by terrorists and leveled by the detonation of a deadly bomb. Nathan, with the help of the Joseph "Super Joe" Gibson from both Mercs and the original Bionic Commando, is tasked with using his bionic arm to help stop both the terrorists and the rampaging bionic agents.

The demo for Bionic Commando was partially hands-on: for a time, I was given a controller and allowed to run around in a level called the "Swingers' Club," set to be one of the maps for Bionic Commando's announced 10-man multiplayer mode. (No, the demo didn't cover much more multiplayer info, but what we have comes up later.) The idea of the Swinger's Club tutorial was just to get used to the reality of platforming with the bionic grapple ... though "platforming" isn't really the right word. The amazing, freeing thing about Bionic Commando is that your bionic arm gives you near-total mastery of three-dimensional space. You can use your arm to pull yourself up to anything you can stand on, you can use it to climb up steep walls and then swing across the ceiling, and you can use swing-jumps to clear wide gaps in Tarzan style.

It is one of the few 3-D games outside of perhaps Mario Galaxy that gives the player the sensation of total mastery of their environment. Playing Bionic Commando is, for a time, to enjoy the total freedom of a somehow-perfect acrobat. This is all before you have any enemies to fight, too. I easily killed a good 20 minutes just swinging around, seeing what my arm could do and where it could take me. You can't take damage or be penalized for falls, unless you fall into water. Even then, you just need to get out of the water before your arm drags you to the bottom. When you're over solid objects, the world is your playground and climbing physics is your favorite toy.

The first level shown off in the hands-off part of the demo was a bombed-out section of Ascension City, since flooded extensively with water. Nathan had to progress through the level by using his bionic arm to essentially swing from one skeletal skyscraper's remnant to another, and occasionally had to cling to incredibly narrow little catwalks while making his way around. The game's HUD is blessedly minimal, allowing you to appreciate the sheer beauty of the surreal landscapes around you. One of the more interesting things the HUD tracks is the adrenaline meter, a series of orange hexes at the lower right corner of the screen. This mechanic is intended as an equalizer, both in multiplayer and solo play.

When the adrenaline meter fills up, Nathan can use a variety of super attacks that are very devastating. The full range of moves available wasn't demonstrated, but one described for us was basically what you could do with the bionic arm in the top-down shooter portions of NES Bionic Commando: swinging it around you in a wide arc to knock away bullets, enemies, and do a lot of damage in the process. You can fill up the adrenaline meter by doing damage, but it fills more rapidly when you're taking damage. The idea is to give poorer players who probably need extra help more super attacks, and especially to help make sure players on the losing end of multiplayer get some way of turning the tide on their opponents.

The magnificence of GRIN's physics engine when it comes to playing Bionic Commando just cannot be understated. Swinging is absolutely natural and intuitive, to the point where you can swing loops around girders and then have difficulty reeling your cable back into your arm, because the cable loops naturally around the girders. The physics doesn't just affect your swinging, either. Weapons in Bionic Commando have been built from the ground up and are significantly more sophisticated than anything this writer has seen in a 3-D action game lately. Take the Tarantula, for instance, a weapon based on the NES title's bazooka. The Tarantula's gimmick is that it can fire multiple rockets at once, and you can actually select separate targets for each rocket. This shouldn't seem like such a big deal, but it's actually amazing to fire a weapon once and see the rockets veer apart to strike two different soldiers, or to strike two different parts of a larger enemy, like a floating weapons platform.

You aren't limited to using weapons like the Tarantula to fight, of course. You can use your bionic arm to grapple and throw around enemies, slamming them into the ground or throwing them at other enemies. You can also throw around any object in a level that your arm can lift, essentially turning your entire environment into a weapon. The game can, as a result, be played in an amazing variety of ways. You can do more sneaking and evasion, sniping at enemies from a distance with your weapons, or play more aggressively, charging enemies and take them out rapidly with your arm. You can also use your arm to control your position, latching onto large enemies and charging in with a dropkick, or latching onto smaller enemies to toss them to a safer distance.

Bionic Commando also manages to have very slick and satisfying combat without reducing enemies to mindless meatbags. When the Tarantula was first demonstrated, the two enemies it was fired at actually attempted, and managed, to dodge and roll away from the rockets. After that, they tried to fire back at Nathan, and even though he was a long way away from them, their bullets actually pinged him often enough to make standing around not an option. Larger mecha-size enemies force you to think about using equipped guns if you've been neglecting them, or at the very least getting very creating with the way you use your bionic arm to get close to enemies that may fly over dangerous chasms. Bosses are somewhat traditional video game pattern bosses, with weaknesses you need to exploit.

The boss shown off in the demo in the Park level is an enemy in a bionic suit that can only be damaged if you get behind him and hit his back. You can do this a bit more easily when using guns, but you fight him on a small rocky island surrounded by water, so sniping isn't really possible. If you want, you can actually try to get behind him and melee him to death with bionic arm attacks, which is efficient, if risky. The boss can damage you with an array of built-in weapons, and will also try to pick you up and fling you off the island and into the dangerous water below. As Nathan takes damage, the screen grows more red and blood-spattered, similar to the HUD-less approach that Gears of War and other modern FPSes take. Nathan regenerates in the fashion that's also popular in modern FPSes, which seems like it could do a lot to keep combat from ever being frustrating, even if you're struggling.

The build of Bionic Commando at the demo was at the end of its alpha development phase. The number of levels could not yet be revealed, nor exactly how linear the final game would be. Still, Bionic Commando was a more impressive game in slightly rough alpha mode than most titles ever manage to be at all. This is shaping up to be an absolutely blockbuster game and possibly one of the finest 3-D action titles ever produced by a non-Nintendo company. Capcom and GRIN thus far appear to have done everything right with Bionic Commando, and here's hoping they stay the course and create a game that realizes all of the amazing potential displayed in the demo session.


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